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  • Writer's pictureHelen Tyrrell

Easter, Eostre and Old Stories

Updated: Mar 30


Ah, Easter! Even if we are promised a cold and wet one here in England, there are flashes of brilliance too: the morning sun, briefly, on the wet grass and black earth; my willow wands producing leaves; my sickly tomato shoots strengthening- too cold to plant out yet – I have made that mistake before. But undeniably Spring is here, and, with it, the four day weekend which signals the feast of Easter.


Much is being made in the papers of the lack of ceremony for Easter this year, arguably the most important in the Christian calendar. Is it playing second fiddle to the Muslim festival of Eid, or even, Ramadan these days? Is the spirit of Easter lost to other pressing matters? Is it a victim of political polarisation? Should we be worried? Let’s see.


Easter, Eostre and Old Stories

When Christianity first took off, festivals were set to correspond to the ancient, pagan festival dates, no doubt because old habits die hard, and there was a far greater chance of embedding the new religion that way. Although there was a new, Christian, message, many of the older ways persisted. Our sustained attachment, today, to ancient symbols such as Christmas trees and Easter Eggs are testament to this. Even the word Easter comes from the ancient goddess of Spring, Eostre (who also gives her name to the hormone oestrogen). Easter day each year is not a set date, but is still determined by the phases of the Moon, which were extremely important to our ancestors.


The Christian message of Easter is the story of the sacrifice and death of Jesus, and his subsequent resurrection ‘on the third day,’ Easter Sunday. It is a message of hope and renewal, giving succour and meaning to some 2.5 billion people worldwide. To say it is an important story is to undersell it. To many, the story of Jesus is the central theme of life. I myself am a Christian at heart, and find deep meaning and instruction in the story of Jesus, although I wish I knew the Bible better than I do.


What’s in the Substrata?

Tradition is built upon tradition, as we have seen. and meaningful stories and symbols persist, because they resonate with us. In fact, the story of the sacrifice of a semi-divine man to serve and save the people, and his subsequent resurrection ‘on the third day’ has its roots in an even older tradition than Christianity. It is, in fact, as old as the hills, dating back to the early agrarian, cultures of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. In those days the supreme deity was imagined as female, and the sacrificed man was her son and consort.


The Great Goddess, AKA the Triple Moon Goddess, had many regional names and forms: Ishtar, Isis, Inanna, Cybele, Ariadne, Pasiphae, Hera, Demeter, Artemis etc. She was one with the Moon, with the cycles of life and death, and with Nature. She was all. Life was not understood in mutually exclusive opposites as it is today– life as opposite to death, or dark as opposite to light, or Spring to harvest: all was understood as part of a great whole which was the Goddess. Agriculture demonstrated perfectly how each phase was part of a wider cycle: apparent death, when the seeds fall and germinate invisibly underground, followed by new growth and life. Human life and death was understood in the same terms.


The cycles of the Moon likewise. The full Moon was seen to grow out of a slender, young, crescent Moon phase, which itself was preceded by the dark Moon phase, an apparent ‘death’ without light or hope, lasting 3 days until it reappeared as the young, crescent Moon once again.


Enduring Images

The Great Goddess was sometimes depicted with her infant son on her knee, as can be seen in  statues and images of Isis and Horus, which strikingly prefigure the iconography of the Christian Madonna and Child. The Goddess' son, in sacrifice, was sometimes depicted hung on the Tree of Life, also prefiguring the iconography of Christ on the Cross. These images are meaningful in that they have somehow persisted in an unbroken thread, from the earliest of times.


The sacrifice of the son and consort of the Goddess, made to ensure the fertility of the land, corresponded to the first day of the Dark Moon. His rebirth, or resurrection, was, like that of Jesus, ‘on the third day,’  when the sliver of the Crescent Moon reappeared, with its promise of new life.


Veiled references to (or memories of) the Triple Moon Goddess also appear in the New Testament, for there are three Marys, Mary being as much a name for ‘woman’ as a specific personal name at the time. Strikingly, too, when Mary Magdalene does not recognise the risen Christ, she mistakes him for the ‘gardener’, and we discover that the ‘Gardener’ was one of the names for the consort of the Goddess.


All this information comes from the amazing scholarly work of Baring and Cashford, ‘The Myth of the Goddess: The Evolution of an Image’ a recommended read for anyone interested in this subject.


A Story that Refuses to Die

So this story of death and resurrection has a long heritage, and it is significant enough to have survived seismic changes to culture and belief systems, surviving for eight thousand years or more. It clearly holds a truth, which resonates deep within us, or it would have disappeared long ago, and it offers a message of hope of renewal, which we see every year too, in the new shoots of Spring.


Our shared culture and mythology may be changing, but history bears out that meaningful stories have a habit of clinging on.


So Happy Easter!

 

References

The Myth of The Goddess: Evolution of an Image, Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, Penguin Arkana,1993

 

Photo by Kaja Reichardt on Unsplash 

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